Tuesday, November 28, 2017

ADIFF ’17: Sins of the Flesh

The combination of political unrest and illicit sex sounds very 1970s, in a Fassbinder-Wertmuller kind of way, but this film is very much rooted in the events of 2011. We are in Egypt, so both are decidedly dangerous, especially the sex. A morality tale of adultery, murder, and guilty consciences plays out in a remote tenant farm while the Tahrir Square demonstrations rage on in Khaled El Hagar’s Sins of the Flesh (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Technically, Ali is a convicted murderer, but given the chaos roiling the country, nobody will spend much time looking for him after his prison escape. Having no other family, Ali takes shelter with his older cousin Hassan, who married his intended, Fatma. It is especially painful for Ali to see them together, because he was sent to jail for fatally defending her honor.

Regardless of marriage vows and cousinly ties, Ali is determined to take up with Fatma again—and she will soon give in to temptation. Unfortunately, their farm-owning landlord Mourad observes their assignation. Although he is not about to directly involve himself in the tenants’ grubby lives, he files it away to blackmail Fatma into sexual compliance at a later date. He is indeed an exploiter, but he is more right than wrong when he constantly predicts the “Days of Rage” will lead to a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood that will be even worse than the Mubarak regime.

Sins is a complicated film to parse, because nearly everyone is highly compromised, except perhaps poor clueless Hassan. There is a good deal of carnal micro sinning going, but it is nowhere near as damaging as the macro political sins. Arguably, the former are a result of the corrosive latter, but El Hagar tries not to overplay the polemical causality.

Nahed El Sebai and Ahmed Abdala Mahomud are both suitably intense, as Fatma and Ali, convincingly wrestling with their status as both victims and perpetrators. However, it is Zaki Fateen Abdel Wahab and Mahmoud El Bezawy who really bring heft, dimension, and often subtlety to the film as Mourad and Hassan, respectively.

In many ways, Sins is a bold film, but it basically builds to the revelation that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Still, when the Muslim Brotherhood is in charge of the nouveau status quo, that is a somewhat daring observation. Fortunately, it works rather well on purely melodramatic grounds. Recommended as an impassioned but somewhat unfocused critique of the old regime and its short-lived successor, Sins of the Flesh plays for a week (12/1-12/7) at the Cinema Village, each afternoon at 1:00, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.